Sidebar: Who Is My Audience?

Academic and professional writers think of readers as members of disciplines or career groups—biologists, lawyers, psychologists, business executives, doctors, and so on. Within these disciplines, members share a set of general principles that apply in their work. For example, regardless of the type of law they practice, most lawyers will—by virtue of their basic legal training—recognize the principles behind habeas corpus, ex post facto, reasonable doubt, presumption, standing, and so on.

But disciplines can be broken down into smaller groups that share more specific principles. We call these smaller groups interpretive communities. For instance, E.P.A. lawyers, corporate lawyers specializing in defense for petro-chemical companies, and lawyers for environmental advocacy groups (such as Greenpeace or Earth First!) might hold different principles regarding how to calculate reasonable damages resulting from a major oil spill—while lawyers who specialize in child custody cases will have no shared principles about calculating damages from oil-spills. All four groups are lawyers, but each group is a distinct interpretive community.

Members of an interpretive community share principles that distinguish them from others in the same discipline.

When you write, you need to consider which interpretive community your readers belong to. The more diverse the group you address, the more general your principles must be – and so the more likely they are to be challenged. Conversely, when you build an argument on principles particular to one interpretive community, you risk alienating readers from other groups. If your readers recognize you as a member of their community, they will be more willing to accept your argument; if they recognize you as a member of a group with which they disagree, you may have to answer certain objections.

Before writing, ask yourself:

  • Am I targeting a specific interpretive community, a larger discipline, or a general audience?

If you are addressing a specific interpretive community, ask yourself:

  • How will my readers recognize me as one of them? What key concepts, phrases, or principles can I use to identify myself and my argument to this group?
  • Will my readers belong to a community that might challenge arguments that are built on a principle I take for granted? What objections< might I need to address in order to appeal to that community? What bridge warrants< might I need to use?

Consider what interpretive community your readers belong to, so you can show them that you understand their principles. Doing so means your readers are more likely to take your argument seriously.